Brian Froud-the background to his art

 

primroses
Primroses (1978)

Readers will be very familiar with Brian Froud’s fairy art from books such as Faeries and Good Faeries/ Bad Faeries.  Here I want to examine what he believes about the subjects he paints- and how that may influence his creative process.

Faeries

Froud- and his artistic partner Alan Lee- first came to public attention as ‘faery experts’ with the publication of the illustrated book, Faeries, in 1978.  It has been through several editions since, including a twenty-fifth anniversary issue, and the illustrations have for many become synonymous with representations of Faery.  This is understandable- there is something very immediate and ‘real’ about their vision of fairies: they are wild and often ugly.  Although the two artists portrayed naked and attractive female fairies, including quite young juveniles,  as often (if not more frequently) there are mature and deformed beings, hybrids of animals and humans, pixies with malicious faces and sharp fangs, a host of barely human humanoids.  The nakedness then serves to emphasise their wild, untamed natures- it isn’t sexual but feral.

Froud toadstools

Writing in her Introduction to the anniversary edition, Betty Ballantine described faeries as “alien creatures with values and ethics far removed from mankind: they do not think and, most notably, they do not feel, the way that humans do. This is precisely the core of much of their envy of mortals and a source of a good deal of the trouble they cause…”  She concluded: “Faerie is a world of dark enchantments, of captivating beauty, of enormous ugliness, of callous superficiality, of humour, mischief, joy and inspiration, of terror, laughter, love and tragedy.”  These lines summarise Froud and Lee’s vision exactly.

In his own preface to the anniversary edition, Brian Froud underlined that he and Lee had “wanted to be as true to the subject as possible and to portray fairies as they really are.  So, we went back to the original source material and folklore description.”  This is the real value of the book Faeries.  It is a very attractive ‘coffee-table’ volume to flick through and admire the illustrations, but the text is a faithful abbreviation of the folklore- although the two artists drew their material from across Europe, mixing up British, Irish and continental faes quite indiscriminately.

Froud continued: “we started to produce page after page of wizened faces with sharp little teeth, most of them up to no good.  We were painting pictures of faeries with their original power reinstated, not just airy whimsy.  We were being true to the fairies themselves and those who have bought the book have instinctively felt that honesty in every painting and drawing.”  Here he identified the reader’s response that still draws us to the images, over four decades later.  The fairyland of Faeries is sexy, menacing, beautiful, distorted; it is complex and imperfect, it mingles good and evil and, as such, it seems authentic.

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Harebell faery (1978)

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries

After the success of Faeries, Brian Froud became particularly closely associated with fairydom and that link has substantially shaped his career since the late 1970s.  His other books include Goblins (1983), Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book (1994), Good Faeries, Bad Faeries (1998), The Faeries’ Oracle (2000) and Brian Froud’s World of Faerie (2007).  With these he has steadily drifted further from the solid base of faerylore that gave Faeries its convincing authority and accuracy and he has increased the whimsy and invention.

In the original Preface to the 1978 book, it is declared that “Only one thing is certain- that nothing is certain.  All things are possible in the land of Faerie.”  This has more and more become the case for the later books, which are much more works of fantasy fiction than attempts to summarise folklore.  Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is a very good example of this.  It is a mix of pure personal invention with traditional material and has to be approached with some care as a ‘source’ book.  As Froud says in the Preface to the ‘Good’ half of the book, it’s “about the magic in our lives today; it links faeries of the past with faeries of the present and future.”  The artwork is still fantastic, but as he tells us “such images grow from my own inner journeys and daily contact with the faeries.”  This new book is a product not so much of trips to the library but of undiluted imagination.

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The faery who was kissed by pixies (1998)

It seems clear to me that, since 1978, the artist has absorbed a lot of the more recent ideas about faeries- theories derived not from British folklore but from Theosophy, Spiritualism and from modern Paganism.  For example, he states “they are shape shifters, highly mutable, for no faery or nature spirit has a fixed body.  In their essence, faeries are abstract structures of flowing energy, formed of an astral matter…”  To look at the faeries is “to look at the four elements to which they are aligned: earth, water, fire and air.  Faeries are physical manifestations of these basic building blocks of creation and the spiritual custodians of all natural phenomena.”  They are “agents of the cosmic mechanics that underlie our world… bringing us messages from the depths inside ourselves and from the cosmos.”  They coalesce from “the pure consciousness of the world’s soul” gradually manifesting “in a form eloquent of function, moulded by emotion.”  This is a man who’s been reading Geoffrey Hodson, Madame Blavatsky and Paracelsus.  As I’ve indicated before, I’m more traditional in my approach to the subject, so I’m not so keen on these passages.

The faeries of Good Faeries, Bad Faeries have been ‘hippified’ too.  No longer are they the potentially malicious beings of 1978: they are “agents of self-growth and transformation, embodiments of the healing energies that flow through nature and through ourselves.”  Faeries are “a reflection of the inner nature of our souls;”  theirs is “a land where wisdom is inseparable from whimsy and where leprechauns dance with angels.”  We’re a long way here from the faeries who steal children and kill your cows…

Good Faeries, Bad Faeries is, in consequence, a curious mixture of traditional sprites, new age spirits and beings that are entirely made up by Brian Froud.  He deals with such beings as hobs, piskies, grigs, muryans,  bodachs, fideals, hobyahs and melsh dick; but also he describes sylphs, angels, undines, pans, fauns and- for some reason- a sphinx (?). He also offers us his own jokey beings, such as the rainbow faery, the buttered toast faery, the pen stealer and the foot fungus faery…

faery waters
Faery waters (1998)

In summary, therefore, Faeries remains a classic and is a recommended book to have in your faery collection- it is attractive as well as genuinely informative.  The later books are a delight to look at, but they can’t be treated as guides to Faery equivalent to the 1978 original.

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

 

Kensington Gardens- Britain’s fairy epic

Thomas_Tickell_by_Sylvester_Harding
Thomas Tickell, by Sylvester Harding

In my recent book, Fayerie- Fairies and Fairyland in Tudor and Stuart Verse, I discussed how the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a period during which outside influences began to alter native fairy beliefs profoundly.  The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance were two such, a third was the work of doctor, astrologer and alchemist Paracelsus, whose theories I have examined before.

The impact of these influences, especially that of Paracelsus, may be neatly contained in a single fairy poem, Kensington Gardens by Thomas Tickell (1686-1740).  Tickell was born near Carlisle and was a graduate of Oxford.  He held various government positions but is mainly recalled as a poet.  He produced a translation of Homer’s Iliad, which he published at the very same time as Alexander Pope’s version in 1715, a coincidence which caused some tension between the two.  The poem Kensington Gardens appeared in 1722 and is a heroic epic describing the fall of a fairy kingdom that once existed on the land that eventually became the park.

Strictly speaking, the poem should be described as Georgian, but Tickell’s birth and education took place within the Stuart period, and it is doubtless fair to assume that Tickell’s outlook and beliefs belong to the seventeenth century.  Kensington Gardens is of interest, therefore, because it encapsulates the mixture of traditional fairy belief and innovation that typified fairies in literature throughout the 1600s.

Tradition in Tickell’s Epic

Concepts of fairy conduct inherited by the author from much earlier include the fairies’ delight in leisure: “Their midnight pranks the sprightly fairies played/ On every hill and danced in every shade.”  They rewarded women for their domestic cleanliness:

“When cleanly servants, if we trust old tales,
Beside their wages had good Fairy vailes,
Whole heaps of silver Tokens, nightly paid,
The careful wife, or the neat dairy-maid…”

But they also stole babies, one of whom is Albion, the hero of the story:

“By magic fenc’d, by spells encompass’d round,
No Mortal touch’d this interdicted ground;
No Mortal enter’d, those alone who came
Stolen from the couch of some terrestrial dame:
For oft of babes they robb’d the matron’s bed,
And left some sickly changeling in their stead.”

Albion is a human child brought up by fairies and kept artificially small by them, although he is still noticeably tall at twelve inches in height.  He falls in love with the fae Kenna, an affair that precipitates the fall of the fairy realm when Oberon discovers and jealously expels the young man.

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Fairy Queen on Bat, Amelia Jane Murray

King Oberon

Newer elements sit alongside these age-old ideas.  Tickell’s king of faery is Oberon.  This name has a long continental pedigree but it was made particularly popular in Britain by Shakespeare’s use of it in Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Oberon’s subjects are especially worthy of note.  As we have already seen, they are small: they are described as a “pigmy race” elsewhere in the poem.  This diminutive stature was a noteworthy development in seventeenth century literature.  Small faes had existed before, but Mercutio’s soliloquy on Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet gave impetus to an elaboration of the possibilities of miniature beings and poets- most importantly Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick- exploited the potential of this idea.  Tickell merely observed what was already a convention by the time he wrote.

Elemental Spirits

Lastly, the fairies of Kensington Gardens are said to have “airy forms.”  This notion of fairies as insubstantial, as well as tiny, derives directly from the work of Paracelsus.  He had proposed in the sixteenth century that the world was supported and kept functioning by elemental beings- the gnomes of the ground, undines of water, salamanders of fire and the sylphs of the air.  Parallels could readily be drawn between these creatures that he imagined and the fairies and goblins of native belief, and that is precisely what happened.  In his Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621, Robert Burton included a ‘Digression of Spirits’ in which he summarised views about fairies from across Europe.  For example, he describes:

“… those Naiades or water Nymphs which have been heretofore conversant about waters and rivers.  The water (as Paracelsus thinks) is their Chaos, wherein they live; some call them Fairies… Paracelsus hath several stories of them that have lived and been married to mortal men…”

Later Burton notes Paracelsus’ views on what he classes as “terrestrial devils,” a group which includes “Faunes, Satyrs, Wood-nymphs… Fairies, Robin Goodfellowes, Trulli etc.”  Two things are notable from these short passages.  Not only has Burton incorporated Paracelsus’ concepts of undines and gnomes; he has liberally strewn his text with classical Greek and Roman terminology. (Burton, Part I, section 2)

Forty years later, in 1665, a new version of Reginald Scot’s well-known book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, was published.  Scot’s 1584 original contains a wealth of fairy information; the new edition was expanded with the addition of ‘A Discourse Concerning the Nature and Substance of Devils and Spirits.’  This new text (like Burton’s) owes a great deal to the new thought of the Renaissance and to Paracelsus’ scientific theories; for example, reference is made to the Neo-Platonists.  Fairies are termed “Astral Spirits,” having an “elemental quality.” They live in water, air, flames and under the earth; they have hunger and passions; they wage war and procreate; they have no physical body and can live for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. (Scot, 1665, Book II, cc.1 & 4)

This later text demonstrates how much the new theories about the nature of fairies had infiltrated British thought.  These ideas, along with references to nymphs, satyrs and other classical beings, were all indiscriminately mixed together, confusing and reshaping fairy belief for future generations.

amelia-jane-murray-
Fairy & moth, Amelia Jane Murray

Tickell’s Sylphs

Tickell’s poem is symptomatic of its age.  His fairies are miniscule, insubstantial forms- a state confirmed in the climactic battle of the war.  Albion fights with Fairy Prince Azuriel and their combat seems to be concluded when:

“With his keen sword he cleaves his Fairy foe,
Sheer from the shoulder to the waste he cleaves,
And of one Arm the tott’ring trunk bereaves.”

However, Albion is fighting a fairy, and different rules apply:

“His useless steel brave Albion wields no more,
But sternly smiles, and thinks the combat o’er:
So had it been, had aught of mortal strain,
Or less than Fairy, felt the deadly pain.
But Empyreal forms, howe’er in fight
Gash’d and dismember’d, easily unite…
So did Azuriel’s Arm, if fame say true,
Rejoin the vital trunk whence first it grew;
And, whilst in wonder fixt poor Albion stood,
Plung’d the curst sabre in his heart’s warm blood.”

Albion is struck down and Kenna is unable to revivify him: “the Fates alike deny/
The Dead to live, or Fairy forms to die.”

Ultimately, classical Greek sea god Neptune intervenes in fairy affairs.  With a sweep of his trident, he destroys Oberon’s divided, fractious kingdom, leaving only ruins on the site where later the new Hanoverian dynasty created its pleasure gardens and named it after Albion’s love, the ‘Aerial maid’ Kenna.

Oberon’s fairy nation is scattered: “Wing’d with like fear his abdicated bands.” They flee to secluded corners of Britain where they can still be glimpsed from time to time as they “featly foot the green,/ While from their steps a Circling verdure springs.” The fairies are not gone entirely, therefore, but they are scattered.

Tickell concludes his epic with several reminders of the transformed nature of his British fairies.  They are small, they are winged and they are sylph-like, aery beings.  In fact, a direct link with Paracelsus’ elementals of the air had already been made by rival poet Alexander Pope in The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1712.  He was the first to introduce this term in English literature, but once he had connected “sylphs and sylphids, fays, fairies, genii, elves and daemons,” British fairies could never be the same again.

the-fae-by-amelia-jane-murray
Fairies on Owl, Amelia Jane Murray

Last Thoughts

Tickell had hoped his lengthy poem would be celebrated as a heroic fairy epic- a landmark in national literary history.  Sadly, it is largely forgotten now, except amongst enthusiasts of Georgian poetry and, of course, fans of faery.  Nonetheless, it’s worth reading- it’s quite entertaining, once you’ve got used to his florid style, and it tells us lots about the fairy faith as one era merged into another.

In conclusion, I’ll repeat what I said at the outset: the seventeenth century was a turning point in British fairy beliefs and Thomas Tickell’s fairy epic encapsulates the old and new ideas that were in ferment.

For more detail of Fayerie and my other faery books, please see my books page.

 

 

Art Nouveau fairies

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh, In fairyland (1897)

The summer issue of Faerie magazine (now Enchanted Living) is to be an art nouveau special.  Here’s my own brief survey of the influence of this art style on depictions of faery.

Myth and symbolism are central to the Art Nouveau.  The style was based around forms and images drawn from the natural world, but its themes came from folklore, romance and legend.  This means that many of the most famous Art Nouveau artists are also known as fairy artists.

Arthur Rackham

I’ll start with the most famous of all, Arthur Rackham.  His work as an illustrator gave him many opportunities to depict faery scenes and he is very closely associated with books that have supernatural, magical or fantasy themes.  Amongst these well-known series of illustrations are Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, Milton’s poem Comus, The Romance of King Arthur, the story of Undine and several collections of fairy tales and fairy ballads, including those by the Brothers Grimm.

undine

As an English artist, Rackham was strongly influenced by many earlier British artistic movements, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement and Aubrey Beardsley. All of these had regularly incorporated magical and mythical themes into their works- especially the romances of King Arthur and the Norse sagas.  If art nouveau is defined by its sinuous lines and flowing organic shapes, we can see how Rackham fits within the genre: his images are identifiable by their twisting foliage, swirling draperies and stylised natural forms.  A picture such as Undine typifies this mix of elegant, swirling line and a veiled erotic rapture.

The Glasgow Four

rose
Frances Macdonald, The spirit of the rose  (1900)

The most important centre for Art Nouveau in Britain was in Glasgow, focussed around the so-called ‘Group of Four’- Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife Margaret, her sister Frances and her husband James Herbert MacNair.  The work of Margaret and Frances MacDonald (as they were before they married) is full of mysticism, symbolism, Celtic imagery and subject matter drawn from literature and folk tales.  Their art has the highly characteristic flowing lines and organic shapes of Art Nouveau and is strikingly beautiful and unique, with elongated figures and rich imagery, such as lush crimson roses and elegant faery queens.

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Fairies, 1898

Frances created many memorable and elegant images of magical women, including Girl and Butterflies, The Spirit of the Rose, Ill Omen: Girl in the East Wind with Ravens Crossing the Moon, The Woman Standing Behind the Sun, The Sleeping Princess, and The Moonlit Garden.  There are strong elements of eroticism and of female power in much of Frances’ art.  Her older sister Margaret also painted many enigmatic pictures, such as The Mysterious Garden, The Heart of the Rose, ‘O ye, all ye that walk in the willow-wood’ (based on a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti), The Sleeping Princess, The May Queen and The Silver Apples of the Moon.  This last painting takes its title from a poem by W. B. Yeats, The Song of the Wandering Aengus (1899) which describes how a young man once caught a fish that turned into a faery girl with apple blossom in her hair; as an old man he longs to find her again and to walk together plucking “The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.”  Yeats was a mystic and folklore expert who had conversations with the faery queen of Sligo and was regularly visited by elemental spirits.  His early poems are suffused throughout with the ancient Irish myths of the Tuatha De Danaan, the fairy family of Dana with their tragic heroines and warrior queens like Etain and The Morrigan.  Yeats’ 1893 collection of verse was titled The Rose and I feel sure that his mystical imagery of the proud, sad, secret red rose in turn inspired the Glasgow Four, for whom the flower became a kind of icon.

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Enter James Herbert MacNair, Tamlaine (1905)

The two MacDonald sisters influenced their husbands in turn.  For example, James MacNair painted a picture Tamlaine based upon the Scottish faery ballad, Young Tamlane, in which a girl falls in love with a human boy kidnapped by the fairies and rescues him from the captivity of the jealous fairy queen.  MacNair also invented his own mythology, such as the picture Y sighlu, which seems to show an enchantress in a cave.

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Part seen, part imagined, 1896

Lastly, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, although he is mainly famed for his furniture and for his architecture (such as Hill House and the School of Art in Glasgow), also painted lush pictures of roses and of mysterious tall women, such as In Fairyland, Fairies and the fae vision of Part Seen, Part Imagined, all illustrated here.

Cayley Robinson

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In the wood so green (1893)

The last artist I’ll discuss is nowhere near as famous as his Glasgow counterparts, although he also taught at the Glasgow School of Art.  This is Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862-1927), a painter influenced by Edward Burne-Jones, but who developed his own very personal and individual style.  His pictures are not ornately decorative like those of the MacNairs and Mackintoshes.  Rather, Robinson produced simple, spare watercolour paintings and book illustrations and designed costume and sets for the theatre.  For example, he worked on a 1909 staging of Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird, creating some stunning and memorable designs.  Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh also drew inspiration from Maeterlinck’s Seven Princesses. 

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The beautiful castle (1894)

Amongst Cayley Robinson’s notable faery paintings are In the Wood So Green, an Arthurian incident in which a woman stands alone amongst trees, as a haloed knight rides past her in the background; The Beautiful Castle, another pseudo-medieval setting; the strange druidic scene entitled The Oak Addresses the Spirits of the Trees, the utopian, arcadian The Kingdom of the Future and The Spirit Water, a portrait of a dark-haired naiad.

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The Spirit Water

Art Nouveau was a relatively short-lived artistic movement, but it produced a wealth of images which still captivate our imaginations today- not only because they are beautiful, but because they are full of enchanted and otherworldly beings who can lead us into a world of romance and enigma.

frederick cayley robinson oak spirit trees
The Oak addresses the Spirits of the Trees (1920)

Further Reading

For further discussion, see my book Fairy Art of the Twentieth Century

 

Anti-Paracelsus- the man who messed up Faery?

Paracelsus

Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (known as Paracelsus) was a German doctor, alchemist and astrologer.  He was born near Zurich in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541.  He is significant to those interested in fairylore for his theory of the spirits of the four elements.

What’s in a name?

Von Hohenheim was a vain and combative man.  There was little in his nature to ingratiate himself with others: he was abusive, conceited and determined to break with tradition.  Typical of this attitude is the fact that he called himself Paracelsus.  Celsus was a respected Roman physician of the 1st century BC; von Hohenheim had declared himself ‘Greater than Celsus.’  In our field of fairylore one of the most respected and widely known figures is the author Katharine Briggs.  Many readers will know her name and may very likely own one of her books- I started my own fairy investigations with a copy of her Dictionary of fairies.  To act like Paracelsus, then, would for me to decide henceforth to call myself ‘Better than Briggs.’

I don’t have either the confidence or the effrontery of Paracelsus, but it tells us a lot about the man.  He knew best- in everything- and previous authorities were worthless.  In contrast, Katharine Briggs was an academic, a careful scholar who had a referenced source for everything she wrote, and I still constantly refer to her books.  Nonetheless, we should recall that she was largely a collator of other people’s work (especially in her best-known books).  I believe we should always use Briggs as our starting point but then proceed to the sources she drew upon rather than just quoting Briggs herself- and let’s not forget that these sources were folklore collections that were often, themselves, already second or third hand from the experiences described.

Briggs,_K

Katharine Mary Briggs

If there is one chink in Brigg’s intellectual armour, it is her friendship with and confidence in the Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue.  It is pretty widely accepted now that Tongue made up a good deal of her material.  She got away with this because, of course, no-one could dispute whether or not she had interviewed some elderly farmer’s wife and for a long time no-one doubted that she had.  In a sense, then, Tongue was much like Paracelsus- she created a mythology which many successors have taken seriously when it did not deserve that respect.

The four elementals

Back to the great Paracelsus.  In his book On nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders and other spirits he set out his theories on the supernatural world (De nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteribus spiritibus, published 1566). He believed that the whole universe was endowed with life and that the intermediate state between the material and the non-material was peopled with real beings associated with the four elements.

Paracelsus was a good Catholic and he stressed the role of God in creating these ‘elementals.’  Part of the divine purpose had been to ensure that no part of the universe was void and without life, but Paracelsus felt there was more to it than that.  The elementals have important functions to perform in the universe (as we’ll see in a little while); he believed that they were vitally necessary and had not been created in vain.  In addition, they exist to prove the marvels of the works of God and Paracelsus therefore argued that our proper response to this is to study them very closely and to learn all that we can about them.

According to Paracelsus, there are four species of elemental .  He used a variety of names for them, even in so short a book as De nymphis.  There are the undines or nymphs of water, the sylphs (a word he invented- it may derive from Greek silphe, meaning grub, or be a contraction of sylvestris nymphi) of the air, the fiery salamanders or vulcani and the pygmies or gnomes of the earth (whom he also called the mountain mannikins).  Once again, the word ‘gnome’ was apparently invented by Paracelsus.  The name was derived by Paracelsus from Greek, either gnōmē (intelligence)- because the gnomes revealed information about hidden treasures- or ge nomos (earth dwelling).  Nevertheless, they are Paracelsus’ invention and so, as Katherine Briggs wrote in the Dictionary of fairies, gnomes “belong rather to dead science than to folk tradition.”

Paracelsus went to great lengths to stress that these elementals that he imagined are not pure spirits.  They are composite spirit-men, very similar in many ways to humans, but not descended from Adam and Eve.  They are more like humans than beasts, but they are neither.  They resemble us both physically and in their personalities.

The elementals’ flesh is more subtle than ours and can’t be grasped or bound; they can travel through solid objects.  Nonetheless, in many respects they are people just like us.  They need food, drink and clothing; they have children, they suffer diseases and other health complaints and, although long-lived, they will eventually die.  The elementals walk about just as we do, albeit at much greater speeds.  Like us they are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb or talkative.  They make tools, they have government, they formulate laws.  They rest and sleep like us; they have their night and day and their seasons.  They are “queer and marvellous” creatures whose major difference to humans is that they have no souls.  Nevertheless, Paracelsus rejected any idea that the elementals are devils or demons; they crave salvation and by marrying a human can receive a soul and thereby be saved.

Paracelsus described his imaginary water, fire, mountain and wind people in detail.  The undines look very like us, living in brooks and pools.  The sylphs are crude, coarse, longer and stronger than we are; their food is like ours- the herbs of the woods which they inhabit.  They are shy and fugitive.  Gnomes are about half the size of humans, and build their houses under the earth. The vulcani are long, narrow and lean.  They appear fiery and they melt and forge metals.

Paracelsus believed that the elementals are rational and ought to be treated with respect.  We can enter into bargains with them and they may give us money.  They do not mix with each other but live solely within their own elements; however, as the human world is compounded of all of the elements, they are able to interact with humans.  The nymphs most resemble humans and are known to marry and interbreed with them.  They have to be treated well, though, as if offended they will rapidly return to their own element.  Likewise gnomes will serve people, providing them with money and knowledge and guiding them to rich resources, but they can deal out blows, too, and will disappear under their mountains at the least provocation.

The elementals have two vital functions, according to Paracelsus: they indicate and warn of future events, such as political and economic upheavals, and they act as guardians over nature.  Specifically the nature spirits- especially the salamanders- make and protect “tremendous treasures in tremendous quantities.”   They steadily reveal these to humans, thereby explaining why it is that we slowly discover new mineral sources and lodes of precious metal.

That’s a summary of De nymphis and I’ve probably already more devoted more space to Paracelsus’ ideas than they deserve, in the circumstances.  Now, we’re all entitled to our fantasies, but the problems arise when people mistake them for scientific fact or for received wisdom.  Both misconceptions have befallen Paracelsus.  What may best be described as a speculation has matured into the status of a report from the otherworld.

sylphs

Pixies and pygmies

Paracelsus’ ideas were widely disseminated, both through the reading of his work and through the thought of other thinkers who drew upon him.  Amongst those who followed his fourfold classification of Faery were Eliphas Levy, Madame Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), W. B. Yeats, Evans Wentz, Rudolf Steiner and Geoffrey Hodson.

Unorthodox and individual as his ideas were, Paracelsus’ four-fold division of nature took hold.  Proof of this is to be found in our usage of the word gnome.  He may have made it up, but on the continent it became associated with the dwarves of Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology and gradually came to act as an alternative label for them.  Dwarf, gnome and goblin are now virtually interchangeable in everyday speech.

Just as he invented his own theories in medicine, Paracelsus invented his own folklore.  Others added to this subsequently, Montfaucon de Villars (in Le comte de Gabalis, 1670) and Eliphas Levi being particular culprits and adding considerably to Paracelsus’ original fantasies from the Kabbalah.

undine 1909

Arthur Rackham, Undine, 1909

Paracelsus and folk tradition

Now, we already know that classical mythology had started to taint native beliefs as a result of the renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman legends.  British fairies were regularly made synonymous with Mediterranean fauns and such like:

“You mountain nymphs which in the desarts reign/ Cease off your hasty chase of savage beasts…/ You driades and light-foot Satyri/ You gracious Fairies, which at even-tide,/ Your closets leave with heavenly beauty stored…” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594); or,

“some are of fyre, and some of the ayre,/ Some watrye and some earthly, and some golden and fayre/ Some lyke unto sylver…” (The Buggbears, George Gascoigne, 1565)

Paracelsus only compounded this trend, but the real problem with his idea of the elementals is that it has next to no basis in folk tradition- nor, perhaps, should we expect it to do so, given Paracelsus’ addiction to rejecting received wisdom.

There are certainly some familiar elements in what he wrote.  He’d spent a lot of time in mines and was doubtless aware of the spirit called the kobold in Germany and knocker in Cornwall; the gnome bears some considerable resemblance to these and fairies too have long been linked to buried treasure.  His undine brides are very like the fairy wives of Welsh folk stories (and other myths).

As his four elementals are partly derived from classical myth, and partly from his own imagination, the difficulty for many subsequent writers has been fitting his ideas in with conventionally recognised fairy tribes.  This has often proved an inevitable and considerable challenge and the result frequently is the incorporation into family-trees of strangers and aliens who just don’t belong there.  Gnomes are one example of this.  As I’ve just said, some similarities can be detected with Germanic dwarves, but in Britain- other than the very localised ‘knockers-‘ there’s really nothing similar.  The Anglo-Saxon word for dwarf, dweorg, was able to mutate into derrickdenoting a West Country sort of pixy, precisely because there was no need for anything resembling a dwarf as such.

The ‘undine’ is something like a mermaid and vaguely resembles a meremaid such as Jenny Green-teeth, but in truth it’s only the fact that they all live in water that unites them.  As for salamanders, there’s honestly nothing remotely like them in British fairy-lore.  The result is that many authors have to rope in Greek nymphs and nereids, rusalkas and any other types they can in order to provide examples of Paracelsus’ four forms.

WOODNYMPH

Charles M Russell, Wood nymph

Paracelsus’ legacy

The achievement of On nymphs etc is that later readers took it too seriously.  It has been treated as a scientific study by a respected Renaissance authority and many have felt that it has to be given the respect due to such a seminal text and incorporated into existing fairy belief.  In fact, in trying to accommodate it with traditional fairy-lore, the tendency has been for Paracelsus’ fantasies to obscure the original material.  Many writers have agonised over fitting elementals and elves together, to the detriment of the latter.

Geoffrey Hodson in Fairies at work and play is an example of this.  He offers us multiple categories of faery beings, including elves, brownies, mannikins (a term he may have borrowed from Paracelsus), the four elementals and devas (borrowed from Hindu belief through Theosophy).  He tries to be scientific and taxonomic, but his list is pretty confusing.  In fact, in modern fairy belief there’s considerable confusion over the exact nature of fairies and I suspect that a lot of this is due to the attempts to incorporate Paracelsus’ categories.

Many contemporary writers feel obliged to try to offer their readers some sort of classification of fairy kind and struggle to find a scheme that includes both brownies, pixies and the four elementals.  They won’t sit together satisfactorily- and this is, of course, because Paracelsus dreamed up his classification with very little reference to tradition (well, German, Northern European tradition: he obviously knew his classical mythology).  It’s very easy to find modern guides to faery which are primarily structured around the four elementals (works by Cassandra Eason, Edain McCoy, Ted Andrews, Dora Kunz, Harmonia Saille, Victoria Hunt and Emily Carding might all be cited).  Readers are offered detailed analyses of the four classes along with procedures, spells and rituals for contacting and working with them.  I’ve even seen ‘water babies’ suggested as a form of beach fairy found playing in the surf, which appears to be promoting Charles Kingsley‘s story far above its station to the status of authentic folklore source.

Praise for Paracelsus?

Is there anything good to say about the book De nymphis?  It’s certainly a good and convincing read, it’s true, but there may be a more substantive benefit.

One aspect of Paracelsus’ description will strike a chord with many: that’s his vision of elementals as guardians of nature.  As we have faced increasing environmental degradation, this role for the fairies has been deliberately promoted.  For many writers, it is close to being their principle function.  As a single example, Rae Beth in The way into faerie describes how the fairies’ dancing keeps “the whole web of Nature in balance and harmony.”  This focus upon ecosystems and natural processes cannot be faulted.

However, in the process (and I particularly blame the Theosophists here) the identification of fairies with the elementals and with finer workings of botany and biochemistry has tended to diminish them until they’re not much more than molecules and minerals moving through the xylem and phloem.  This trend may have been initiated, however unwittingly, by Paracelsus, but it’s diverged even from his ideas.  He was quite clear that the elementals are people, just like us, with their moods and aspirations, whereas some more recent writing has stripped them of this individuality.

Modern scientific thinking makes us want to order and arrange things logically and neatly and the writing of Paracelsus provides an apparent starting point for doing this.  The thing is, though, a great deal of it’s nonsense, and I think we should all be a lot happier if we just ditched it and stuck to the observation and experience of tradition.

Further Reading

I discuss Paracelsus work and its impact at greater length in my books Fayerieon Tudor and Stuart faerylore, and in my study Nymphology.